French Tutor

My French tutor has a cold nose. She also has four legs and a tail. It's actually a stub with a tiny bald spot at the end but it conveys her moods as well as any conventional tail and is more knick-knack friendly.

Her name is Ripley. She's a Giant Schnauzer. “Giant” being the operative word. A point I tried to drive home to Fernando the cat on the day Ripley arrived. The cat ignored my instructions to wage psychological war on Ripley while he still had a chance to make an impression. But she was a cute little bundle of black fur with adorable brown eyes! How could he swat something smaller than him? Regret was written on his face when she doubled in size and weight after two weeks and decided to use him for a soccer ball. Apparently, hind sight is 20/20 even when you're a cat.

I had pick of the litter so I put the girls through a series of puppy tests. I wanted the dominant female. It turns out that I'm much better at testing puppies than I thought. By the time she was eight weeks old, Ripley displayed a dizzying variety of dominant behavior. She growled over toys and food, she stepped on my toes, she leaned against me - and pushed, she stood between me and any food I'd set on the coffee table. She came when she was called but never in a straight line. She even lifted her leg to declare that the trees in the yard were hers. And when she realized that only I was allowed on my bed, she quietly removed herself to the living room to sleep alone. She was not willing to play second fiddle to anyone. She was stubborn, strong willed and hard headed. My mother's wishes had come true - I had a child just like me.

It was obvious that she thought a lot about how to unsettle the pack leader and claim the throne for herself. She wasted little time chewing furniture, peeing on the rug or whining at night. She spent a lot of time refusing to be rolled onto her back, getting onto the couch and chasing the cat, my cat -in other words, using my toys without my permission. My older dog, Kevvie, who happens to be Ripley's aunt, was a plaything, too. Albeit, a plaything with teeth and a short temper around midget upstarts who repay the boss' kindness with disrespect. Sometimes I broke up dog fights but most of the time Kevvie enjoyed a sort of anonymity. Ripley wasn't concerned with Kevvie. Kevvie wasn't the boss.

When Ripley was 1½, I took a crash course in French. Two weeks in Montreal made me dangerous. Dangerous enough to put a few words together to make a sentence. Dangerous enough that anyone who spoke French didn't want to hear me butchering their language. That's where Ripley comes in.

I don't know if it's because she missed me (yeah, right) or because she was a French dog in a former life but Ripley loved to hear me trying to speak French. Her stub would wag, her ears would lift and she would smile. So, I started practicing French with Ripley. She never laughed at my pronunciation or ridiculed my grammatical errors. She'd never cared what was on my mind when I spoke English, but she was always interested in what I had to say in French. It made learning fun. For both of us.

We practiced obedience commands in French. We discussed the meaning of life. We exchanged sweet nothings - I in French, she with her stub. The breakthrough came when I found her on her back with her legs splayed and playfully asked, "Est-ce que tu fais le morte?" (“Are you making the death?”). She grinned a big dog grin and wagged her stub so hard it could have whipped eggs for a soufflĂ©. I took advantage of her mood to rub her belly, something she rarely tolerated. A few minutes later, when she'd regained her composure (and her attitude), I said, "I liked you better when you were dead." And added, “Why don't you ‘fais le morte’?" I was shocked when she instantly fell to the floor and rolled onto her back, splaying her legs and wagging furiously! She'd taught herself a trick and, in the meantime, allowed herself to be subservient to me without compromising her ethics. It was the beginning of a better relationship - and of household harmony.

My French has improved and so has Ripley’s temperament. We occasionally have spats over territory and household rules but I think she's just trying to hang onto her childhood, sa enfance. We hadn’t realized that we were speaking different languages until we learned a new one together. It made us closer. It's amazing what adjusting the lines of communication can do!

The discovery of Ripley’s true self, her inner tutor, has resulted in real learning experiences. Practical French and practical relationships. Too bad it’s costing me a fortune in baguettes and Roquefort! I hope she doesn’t learn to like wine.

Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at


1 comment:

Barb M said...

That's great that she understands French! He he! My guide dog was raised by French people, so she too can understand obedience commands in French.